Hanging the Judge

Lupe Salinas made a lot of friends on his journey from a Rio Grande Valley childhood to becoming a dogged prosecutor and respected state district judge. Until he was tapped for a federal judgeship, he never knew how many enemies he had.

"Let me give you another analogy," adds Holmes, who seems to have an inexhaustible supply. "I got a call from a bunch of people down in south Harris County, a municipality. They were irate because they perceived the police department was hassling all of their juveniles because they couldn't get through [City Council] a teen curfew. So when [the teens] would drive up and down the local drag, [the police] would bust 'em for not wearing their seat belts. They were irate about it, pure-dee harassment. Set up an appointment and came down to see me. And I said, well, it may be. But there's a way around that. The way around it is: wear your fuckin' seat belt!"

Awaiting Judgment
Salinas moved easily around the Thanksgiving party tossed at his courtroom, chatting, shaking hands and occasionally taking knowing pats on the shoulder and best wishes from court personnel and lawyers. The festivities clearly were lacking any pretense of holiday abandon, and conversation about the deep-fried turkey on the conference room table filled in some uncomfortable silences. William Hatten, the 82-year-old visiting judge filling in for Salinas during his suspension, sat by a window, his ivory hair and gray face even paler in the light.

Salinas shuttled between his office phone and the conference room party, at one point checking in with a contact in the Clinton administration about his increasingly long-shot judicial chance. "He said to keep them informed of developments," Salinas reported with a grimace.

The judge was feeling more combative after sustaining the initial shock of the indictments. "Not so much shame anymore," said Salinas, "but just regret that the system could be used in this fashion, to come out with an accusation of this nature. After a while I realized the people are behind me. The number of friends and people who see it for what it is and who are very, very supportive. Like that little lady who works at a very low salary who says, "Fight for us. Get in there and fight."

Just as the district attorney clearly believes Salinas is responsible for his legal problems, Salinas resolutely maintains that Warden is the source of all his troubles.

"There is that picture I get, like I owed her something. And I owed no one anything. I owed the position that I was involved in the best that I could offer, either from me or my staff. In getting to the feds the only thing I owed was to give the federal court and judiciary the respect it deserves."

Salinas says he's convinced that even if the federal appointment is lost, he'll weather the perjury charges and move on, with one important lesson learned. "The experience has caused things to be different," he says. "I don't think any public official should ever, ever again accept cash contributions. They're allowed under the law, but this is just a lesson that no public official should even get close to cash."

Orie Salinas says the explanation she gave the couple's three children about the indictment of their father is also what she'd tell his supporters. "I told them that they know Daddy," she says. "They know what he's come from and how hard he's worked. They know how he's lived his life. That people will always talk and say things, even if they know that it's not true. That's the way the world is. They have to be very strong. They have to trust him."

She finds the indictments incomprehensible, particularly since her husband is a stickler to the point of paranoia about walking the straight and narrow in other aspects of his life. She recalls how her husband would not let their daughter, Laurie, drive without carrying her learner's permit. Or how he refused to take cash from his mother at a fundraiser because it was over the limit.

"I know as well as Lupe does how much his career means to him," she adds. "I have seen the sacrifice that he has made to become what he has become and to stand at the doorway of a federal judgeship. To see him come so far from nothing, barefoot and poor, I know in my heart he would never do anything to jeopardize it."

A visiting district judge will hear the Salinas case next month in a Harris County courtroom. If Holmes has his way, it will be what Salinas didn't do -- in effect failing to wear his campaign report seat belt -- that sends his career through the windshield.

For a public servant who has performed so well for so long, the destruction of a career seems a terrible price to pay for such small mistakes.

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